Creating new habits and making them stick
Changing our behavior long term is a self-engineering challenge that most of us find difficult to implement. No matter the area – diet, exercise, sleep or mindset, to name but few examples – getting out of our habitual practices is something we humans struggle with, even when we are fully aware that those habitual practices may be damaging our well-being.
Why is behaviour change so tricky for us? Partly it is our mindset –‘all or nothing’ thinking, for example, or a negative predisposition (‘it will not help anyway’). Sometimes we try to change too much too quickly, or neglect to use or find the tools that can make change easier. We can easily underestimate the effort and commitment involved, and when we fail, we are oh-so-quick to self-judge and self-criticize for yet another ‘failure’; at least, that is how we see it.
Yet your life today is the sum of your habits, and with a bit of initial motivation, you can create new habits that contribute to the quality of your life on all levels – physical, mental, emotional and more. Here are some tried and tested tips for creating new habits and making them stick.
Be clear with yourself
Having a clear, aspirational goal that is meaningful to you contributes significantly to the achievement of that goal. This may sound obvious, but it is not. It is all too easy to drown in a large, vague or all-too-demanding goal (‘I want to lose weight’ or ‘I want to run a marathon’). The bigger and more non-specific a goal is, the more likely we are to drop it after a while. Do not underestimate the importance of the goal-setting process.
Here are some key principles for goal clarity:
- Commitment – check with yourself how emotionally attached you are to the goal and your level of determination to reach it. For example, if you decide to create better connections with team members, to what extent is this meaningful to you, and how truly motivated are you to do it? Is this something you think you should do, or something you would like to do?
- Clarity – set clear and precise goals that can be measured or clearly felt. When a goal is clear in your mind, you know exactly what is required and the resulting success is a further source of motivation.
- Challenge – we are motivated by achievement and the anticipation of achievement. Set a goal that is challenging but that you believe you will be able to accomplish. Ideally your goal will trigger you positively but not overwhelm you.
- Keep it simple – make sure the task is simple, clear and within your reach. It is best to break down big goals to smaller elements, and then the likelihood of achievement is increased. For example, instead of saying ‘I will go to bed at 10pm every night’ (which may feel too early for you given your commitments or wishes), you can decide to go to bed 15 minutes earlier than your usual bedtime and stick with this new habit until it becomes routine.
The daily routine of life and the power of old habits can sometimes beat the best of motivation out of you, a little bit at a time. Before you know it, you have lost the drive you once had to achieve your goal.
One of the best ways to keep making consistent progress is to keep the fire of inspiration ignited. Here are a few suggestions how to prime inspiration:
- List your heartfelt reasons for change and read them daily.
- Listen to motivational speakers on the specific theme you chose (you will find many on YouTube, Spotify and on podcast channels).
- Use inspirational quotes. Write them on sticky notes and place them around your desk, on your mirror, as a screen saver on your phone or on your computer monitor. Words have power; the right words at the right time can make a big mental difference.
- Choose a symbolic object that represents your goal – it will help remind you of the importance of your goal. You can use any object as long as it visually represents some aspect of your intention. Display it somewhere you will see it regularly. It can recharge your inspiration each time you see it.
Prime your environment
Winston Churchill’s famous saying “I can resist anything but temptation” highlights a basic truth about human nature: we can be easily led astray from the best of intentions. We seek quick and easy reward (a good survival mechanism), so when a reward is easily available, it’s much more challenging to resist it.
Here are some simple but effective tips for avoiding the tempting triggers that are likely to set you back:
- Clear your space of those items that are likely to tempt you. Want to lose weight? Remove the stack of cookies from your cupboard. Want to save some money? Limit your social media accounts to ad-free platforms.
- Make temptation more challenging to reach. Want to watch less television? Place it (or the remote control) in the loft.
- Or make your goal easier to reach. Want to drink more water? Keep a full bottle on your desk. Want to go out for a run? Prepare your running gear the night before, shoes right by the door.
- Find supportive partners – anyone who shares your goals and the journey to get there. These people can keep you motivated, inspired and well informed. Conversely, keep away from negative people who judge your plan of change or have little or no faith in your success.
Use existing habits as a hook for change
A good way to trigger a new behavior is to connect it to an already existing routine; things you already automatically do, preferably every day. For example:
- You could go for a walk immediately after you have lunch
- Stand up every time you make a phone call
- Drink a glass of water with your coffee, or
- Send a short, friendly message to a colleague just before turning the computer off for the evening.
In this way, you help change happen by attaching it to an already well-established, automatic behaviour.
Nudge and be nudged
Even with the best intentions in mind, we still occasionally need a little poke in the back, a reminder of our commitment to ourselves. Consider the following:
- Add your intended behaviour as an appointment in your agenda. For example, if you decide to regularly dedicate your best focus time to work that requires deep concentration, block these hours in your agenda. Or, if you choose to do a five-minute breathing exercise at 3pm daily, block these minutes in your agenda and set the timer to alert you 5 minutes beforehand.
- Surround yourself with people who share the habits you want to have yourself, for example, agree with a colleague (even virtually) on a set lunch-time walk. Or share an exercise plan with your partner, even if it’s just a walk around the block.
While it may feel strange to write certain entries in your agenda (‘10.30pm – bedtime’) or even annoying to have someone else remind you of what you might prefer to forget, those small cues can provide just that extra little push needed to turn a new habit into an automatic one.
Habits are not a finish line to be crossed; they are a lifestyle to be lived. A lifestyle extends throughout our life, so invariably there will be moments when you will miss the mark and fail to adhere to your new behaviour(s). When this happens:
- Be kind to yourself. Nothing is achieved by berating yourself and criticizing your every move; Double-check your motivation: do you want to change your habit(s) because you want to take better care of yourself, or because you think there is something wrong with you?, and congratulate yourself on what you did manage to change rather than judge yourself on what you didn’t.
- Accept that perfection does not exist. Humans are not robots and often there are many factors in place that are beyond our control, like a sick child or a sudden COVID-19 quarantine. When aiming to adopt a new habit, ‘good enough’ goes a long way and is far more likely to succeed than ‘perfect’.
- Look at ‘failure’ as a chance to reflect. Nelson Mandela was famous for saying “I never failed. I either succeeded or I learned something”. What can the inability to stick with a new behaviour teach you? Is it a chance to re-define your goal? Make it simpler or more practical? Recalibrate your expectations? Or get more support along the way? Whatever it may be, use the opportunity to learn and grow instead of declaring yourself a failure.
In the hustle culture we live in, it is easy to get caught up in the vicious cycle of more. Do more. Work more. Change more. Rushing forward as we do, we forget to stop and celebrate our success, however small. While we can be harshly critical of ourselves if we fail to stick to a new habit, we can be equally dismissive when we do stick to it, as if success in changing was the most natural thing to expect. It is not.
Celebrating your new-habit accomplishments provides positive reinforcement to your effort and is likely to motivate you further. Consider it a confidence booster, a way to create a positive mindset or a token of gratitude to you. Here are a few suggestions for celebrating your successful habit change:
- Treat yourself to something you really appreciate and enjoy
- Share your success story with others
- Take some precious ‘Me time’
- Write down a list of what you did well and hang it in your bathroom
- Buy yourself a small, meaningful gift
Do not wait for some huge achievements to celebrate. You are celebrating because you are successfully changing your habits. You are celebrating because of who you are becoming.
Make it happen
There is no fail-proof formula for behaviour change any more than there is a perfect recipe for a popular dish. Many factors, internal and external, intervene to make the adoption of new habits easier or more challenging. Nevertheless, some factors can make the change more likely to succeed in becoming a permanent lifestyle choice. Whether you wish to improve your focus, create more meaningful connections or renew your personal resources, the strategies above are likely to help you advance one notch further.
Good luck in taking good care of yourself – and others. You – and they – deserve it.